Perils of repatriation

Last October the “DeYoung”: museum in San Francisco reopened after extensive remodeling. One of the gems in their new collections is the “Jolika Colletion of New Guinea Art”:, which is one of the largest collections of New Guinea artifacts in the United States. This and their larger “Oceania”: collection puts the DeYoung on a par with the Field Museum, the Peabody, the Met, and the Smithsonian. In fact it puts it on a par with just about any museum in the world, as far as I can tell. Although I’ve not yet been, what make the Jolika collection unique is that much of the collection’s highlights are available for viewing, rather than shut up in the basement.

The collection used to belong to John and Marcia Friede and making it public now has raised serious issues about repatriation. Nature even has an article about it entitled “Guinea Experts Cry Foul On Tribal Exhibit”: Shouldn’t the museum try to return these objects to the descendants of their original owners?

The Nature article plays up a familiar anthropological morality play — righting the wrongs done by past colonial anthropologists to the indigenese — but the things look to be more complicated than this. The very fact that the nature article uses ‘Guinea’ in the title rather than ‘New Guinea’ indicates that someone is not as attentive as they could have been about the details of this case.

Now there is no doubt that John Friede is more than willing to play the part of an aesthete untouched by the concerns of indigenous people. He’s quoted in the article as saying that repatriation is “crazy” and that “it really doesn’t matter a great deal” where and how dealer’s acquire their artifacts. “My desire,” he says, “is to create a collection to define the greatness of the art.”

But where are the ‘experts crying foul’ in this picture? Papua New Guinea’s ambassador to the United States says that this issue is not something that his government is particularly concerned about. Barry Craig is quoted as saying that Papua New Guinea’s laws about repatriation ought to be followed, and Adrienne Kaeppler argues that the collection needs “to be studied in conjunction with people knowledgeable about the culture from which they were taken,” which sounds more like a call for an anthropological (rather than formal art historical) approach to the study of material culture, not ‘crying foul.’

Brian Egloff believes an audit should be done so that people can decide what can be done with the collection. And it appears that the DeYoung agrees. John Buchanan, the museum’s director, says that the DeYoung wants “to be a positive player to resolve the puzzle. The way to do that is to be as transparent as we can.” The enforcement officer from The National Museum in Port Moresby is coming to the collection to check it out, and expects to have no problem repatriating objects if they prove to have been illegally acquired.

In sum, in fact it looks like the “Guinea Experts” aren’t “crying foul” and it looks like everyone involved is concerned with doing what is right regarding the artifacts. To be sure, the museum may be motivated more by PR concerns, and of course we have only promises of action so far, which is quite different than actually doing something. But I think that it is more than a little procrustean to try to turn what is happening to the DeYoung into a morality tale about the perils of repatriation.

In fact the biggest problem that I (and others on the email lists I am on) find with these exhibits is that they are curated in such a way to think that Papua New Guinea has not changed in the 600 years since some of these objects were created. Looking at these exhibits you’d have no idea that contemporary Papua New Guineans watch (and make!) “music videos”: or “blog”: Nor does the DeYoung, as far as I know, have any interest in collaborating with contemporary Papua New Guinean artists as near-by(ish) Stanford did when it created it’s “Sepik Sculpture Garden”:, a project which has continued to help connect Stanford to Papua New Guinea in “tenuous but tangible ways”:

But of course the Nature article did not mention the need to address what has happened in Papua New Guinean since 1974 and what Papua New Guineans are doing now, since presumably the authors at Nature knew what they are doing: being victimized. Such a view puts Papua New Guineans on the moral high ground but robs them of their agency. And, most importantly, it is bad reporting. There may be something fishy going on at the DeYoung, but Nature has not figured out what it is.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

One thought on “Perils of repatriation

  1. I find it interesting how John Friede talks about these things as being “art.” I suppose he thinks it is better than talking about it as “natural history”, but I highly recommend the following article to those who have not read it:

    MacGaffey, Wyatt. 1998. “Magic, Or as We Usually Say, Art: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art.” In The Scramble for Art in Central Africa, edited by Enid Schildkrout, and Curtis A. Keim, Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

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